Forget about the X-Files. Working a crime scene for evidence requires both painstaking attention to detail and technical expertise. And it doesn't fit neatly into an hour time-slot with time out for commercials. Ask Roy Cavan-he knows the truth.
Cavan, a 1968 Ferris Business Administration graduate, decided early on that he didn't want to sit behind a desk and do the usual 9-5 routine. "My dad was in management at Ford, and the expectation was that I'd do that, too," Cavan recalls. "But I realized about half-way through my junior year I wanted to do something in law enforcement. I didn't share that with my parents at the time for fear of losing funding!"
Today, Cavan is an FBI special agent who coordinates an Evidence Response Team based in Columbus, Ohio. Cavan supervises 20 agents, two photographers and two evidence technicians. Teams such as Cavan's were implemented in the early '90's after pilot projects in Massachusetts and California.
The innovative approach to preserving and researching crime scenes bore fruit early on. Cavan cites the high-profile kidnapping case of young Polly Klaas. It was the work of the newly formed San Francisco team that supplied a crucial clue. "The sophisticated equipment the team had resulted in the discovery of a palm-print, which lead to the arrest of the subject," Caran says. The Northern Ohio unit was formed in 1993 shortly after that early success.
The concept has crystallized into a standard procedure that involves securing the scene, protecting the evidence, photographing, diagramming, narrative description and packaging and shipping of evidence. Agents on the team go through an 80-hour block of instruction, much of which is on-going education in such specialized courses as trajectory analysis, computerized sketching and blood-splatter analysis. As such courses might suggest, it's not always easy work.
And it's work that takes Cavan a long way from northern Ohio. Cavan's team backs-up a Rapid Deployment Team based at the FBI's Washington, D.C., field office. With equipment packed and ready to go, in Ohio the Evidence Response Team can be in Washington within six hours of receiving a call and on their way to any part of the world via military aircraft in eight hours.
Foreign and Domestic
One of those far-flung places was Kosovo in the wake of the worst outbreak of violence in Europe since the Second World War. Cavan's unit was sent to Kosovo at the behest of the Justice Department and State Department in an effort involving several United Nations countries, including France, Canada and Great Britain. Although the investigation was in support of the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, Cavan is quick to note that his unit's mission was strictly non-political. While much of the blame of the area's "ethnic cleansing" has been placed on Serb forces under the control of then-President Slobodan Milosovic, there were atrocities on all sides.
In Kosovo, Cavan helped corroborate information UN investigators received about murder victims. Along with doctors from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Cavan's team exhumed and examined bodies, identifying individual victims when possible. Lack of dental and medical records made identification difficult at best. In many cases researchers relied upon such basic methods as identifying individual victims through items of clothing.
Normally, collecting forensic evidence is time-consuming and a matter of paying close attention to each and every detail. "To process a car correctly it takes a crew of four 8-10 hours, for example," he says. "Normally you can't be in a hurry." The scale of the violence in Kosovo, however, made normal procedures impossible. The sheer magnitude of the offenses did, however, reinforce the professional detachment agents have to have when working a crime scene.
That detachment wasn't as easy when his team was dispatched to Oklahoma City to work the Edward P. Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed. "Going in you knew that you were going to see bodies, but you never knew what else you were going to find," Cavan says. "There were toys from the day-care center, photographs of kids on the wall. It was very emotional."
The Making of an Agent
After graduating from Ferris, Cavan went into the oil business for a time, ("Which means I was pumping gas at Shell," he laughs) before spending seven years with the Detroit Police Department. There, Cavan became part of the DPD's Tactical Mobile Unit, one of whose main tasks was crowd control-not an easy job in 1968 in the wake of that city's riots. In 1973 he submitted an application to the FBI. Suddenly his Business degree came in handy. "The Bureau looks for people with degrees in Business, Accounting, Biology, Microbiology and, of course, now Computer Science. So the Business degree served me well."
Cavan has realized his early desire to have a job that gets him out from behind his desk. He also remains active in his off-hours, refereeing for 80-90 hockey games a year. He has, however, gone from officiating at the high school level down to more junior leagues due to three knee operations. But he didn't injure the knee out on the ice. "I was injured on the job. Kicking a door in, believe it or not, while serving a search warrant."
Asked what he'd most like people to know about him and his job, Cavan emphasizes the education he received at Ferris provided him with the basis for succeeding in his career. "I'll be honest, I wasn't the best student when I was younger. Had Ferris not given me a chance I probably wouldn't have gone on to college."
Ironically, funding continues to be one of Cavan's concerns-although now it's government and not parental money. "Administrations and Congress change, so priorities get shifted. Sometimes it's hard to have a sense of continuity," laments Cavan. Some things just never change. And that's the truth.
From the 2001 Winter issue of Crimson & Gold